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Arizona legislature on summer break

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Their work isn't done.
But state lawmakers are on break -- again -- this time until June 12.
House Speaker Ben Toma told Capitol Media Services that part of the problem is that not all of the 31 Republicans can be present until that date. And even the loss of one would undermine efforts to advance the GOP policy agenda unless they can attract Democrats in the 60-member chamber.
But the Peoria Republican said the time away may provide an opportunity to negotiate and resolved some major issues that have so far defied resolution, ranging from whether to take some zoning powers away from cities amid claims it will produce more affordable housing to deciding whether Maricopa County residents will get to vote on Proposition 400 and whether to extend the current half-cent sales tax for transit issues for another 20 years.
Closely linked to that is the possibility that Gov. Katie Hobbs, a supporter of Proposition 400, might be willing to sign legislation curbing the ability of cities and towns to force landlords to pay local sales taxes on residential rentals.
Hobbs had vetoed such a plan earlier this year as unfair, saying there was no guarantee that tenants would reap the benefits through lower rents.
But the governor, asked about that earlier this week, was less clear about her intent.
"I'm not going to go into specifics of how we're negotiating on that bill,'' she told Capitol Media Services.
And there's at least one other issue that lawmakers hope to resolve before they finally pack up and end the 2023 session: tamales.
That goes to the question of under what circumstances should people be allowed to cook foods at home and sell them directly to the public.
Hobbs vetoed a wildly popular bill -- it passed by huge bipartisan majorities -- insisting that it did not protect public health. But the governor has yet to say what changes would be necessary to get her to reconsider.
The decision to recess came after the House on Monday -- the last day it had those 31 votes present -- approved and sent to Hobbs more than 90 bills.
Many of these were part of the partisan agenda, ranging from parental and student rights, like whether a child can demand to be addressed by a pronoun of his or her choosing, to other social and culture issues like regulating drag shows. And many of these are likely to provide an opportunity for Hobbs to boost her veto tally -- already at 72 by the end of the day Tuesday -- even higher.
One of the biggest issues to be resolved is the tension between affordable housing and zoning.
Home prices and rents have skyrocketed in much of Arizona. And developers have argued that at least part of the reason is due to regulation.
Some of it is procedural, like the amount of time and the number of steps it takes to get permits.
But the bigger question falls into the category of whether communities, through zoning, are making housing less affordable. Issues range from how many homes can be placed on a lot of a given size to how much off-street parking needs to be provided.
One version forbids cities from preventing homeowners from adding "accessory dwelling units'' to their properties that can be rented out.
And there even are requirements for a city to allow construction of new low-income housing up to 80 feet tall, near light rail stations.
Municipal lobbyists argue that zoning is a quintessentially local function determined by public officials after getting input from area residents about what they want their communities to look like. But that, in turn, has led to claims of NIMBY-ism -- the idea that certain housing is fine, just "not in my back yard.''
Hobbs hasn't weighed in on overriding local zoning in the name of driving down mortgage payments and rents, instead focusing on the money she got in the budget to help not only the homeless but also to finance low-income housing projects. But Christian Slater, her press aide, said the governor believes that "increasing housing supply up and down the cost scale is helpful for lowering housing costs for everybody.''
Then there's Proposition 400.
State law allows county residents to decide whether to impose a sales tax to finance local transportation improvements. These can involve everything from road repair to freeway construction. But there also are elements of mass transit, including buses and light rail.
But only Maricopa County has to get legislative permission for each 20-year election. And without such a go-ahead, the levy -- and the programs the half-cent levy funds -- will expire at the end of 2025.
This problem should have been solved last year when lawmakers gave the go-ahead. But Doug Ducey, governor at the time, vetoed the measure as a tax hike, even though all it would have done is allowed residents to make the decision themselves.
Now, a newly reconstituted legislature includes more foes of mass transit. And they say they won't support a new vote unless elements are sharply curtailed.
Most controversial is light rail with its high construction costs.
The initial 20 miles had a price tag of about $70 million per mile. And the Free Enterprise Club which lobbies against light rail, pegs the cost of an extension being built in South Phoenix at $245 million per mile.
And some lawmakers say their support for a 20-year extension is conditional on no new light rail, a measure that would halt expansion.
Hobbs said she wants the issue resolved.
That, however, goes to the question of whether she might be able to persuade some Republicans to go along if they can get something else they want: elimination of residential sales taxes.
In February, Hobbs vetoed such a bill, saying it suffers from "defects'' like the lack of any enforcement mechanism to ensure that landlords, who are the ones who actually remit the tax to the cities, actually will pass along the savings to their tenants.
Toma said he believes that a new version approved by the House earlier this week may be more acceptable to the governor -- and provide the basis for a deal.
That still leaves unresolved for now what has been called the "tamale bill,'' vetoed by the governor as not providing sufficient protections for buyers from diseases from home cooked foods.
The bill does have some safeguards, ranging from requirements for home chefs to register and get some training to labeling with ingredients and a disclosure to buyers that the food was made in someone's kitchen. Hobbs, however, has so far refused to say what further changes she needs to make it acceptable to her.
Lawmakers took several breaks already since the session began in January. But these generally were for a week or so while legislative leaders worked out details of the $17.8 billion budget deal that Hobbs finally signed last week.
On Twitter: @azcapmedia